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White House, meet Burning Man: A Coda to the Obama Era

By January 10, 2017No Comments

An extraordinary coda to the Obama era is the story of the White House and Burning Man.

1-shbenqcdxo715niavqfh4aAs Dale Dougherty and I were developing the Maker City project, we worked with the White House to engage over 100 U.S. cities in making the pledges necessary to turn their cities and towns in Maker Cities. As I was leaving the White House one night two years ago I thought, “100 maker cities! But surely the most Maker City of all is missing.” Cue Black Rock City.

I called my friends at Burning Man and asked if they’d like to be included as a White House maker city. “Will they have us?” asked Burning Man’s Jenn Sander.

I called Stephanie Santoso at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. “Burning Man? Will they have us?!!”

I made the introduction, White House Meet Burning Man. (Text copied below.)

A few weeks later Harley Dubois and colleagues from Burning Man were at the White House meeting with cities & agencies to explore how the regional burner network might address urban problems (inspired by Burners Without Borders.) Stephanie Santoso from the White House came to Burning Man and reported back a long agenda of possible collaboration. Tom Kalil, the Deputy Director for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy got involved. Tom later penned the introduction to our book about Maker Cities while Jenn wrote the Maker Metropolis chapter, explaining how Burning Man Principles can inform all cites.

On the occasion of the Obama farewell, a big thanks to the team at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy for their support of the maker movement, entrepreneurism, and the spirit of American reinvention!

White House, Meet Burning Man

To: Stephanie Santoso, Tom Kalil, Executive Office of the President

CC: Jenn Sander, Harley Dubois, Burning Man; Dale Dougherty, Maker Media

From: Peter Hirshberg

Date: 6/30/2015

Re: White House, Meet Burning Man

Stephanie Santoso at the Office of Science and Technology Policy, please meet Jenn Sander who leads innovation and partnerships for Burning Man.

Jenn, last year, on June 18, President Obama hosted the first-ever White House Maker Faire and challenged “every company, every college, every community, every citizen to join us as we lift up makers and builders and doers across the country.” On June 12–18, 2015, the White House will celebrate a Week of Making, including a National Maker Faire in Washington D.C.

Over 100 U.S. cities have taken a Maker Cities pledge, developing maker spaces, recrafting education along the lines of participation, STEM and civic participation, and engaging citizens in the co-creation of their cities. This effort will be expanded this year as cities work together in an emerging Open Innovation network to pursue these goals

In our discussions at the White House, Burning Man has come up repeatedly as exemplifying some of the best aspects of making and the American experience. Like the United States itself, Burning man is a federation of diverse citizens (or camps, or tribes) who come together to celebrate both shared values and diversity, both personal expression and community. Both the United States and Burning Man are globally known as restlessly innovate and at the forefront of our planet’s future. The regional Burner network is respected as one of the largest and geographically diverse community of makers, artists, and socially committed citizens in our nation. Burning Man is at once an experimental city and a community embedded in America’s many communities.

The Administration believes the incredibly civically engaged Burning Man community should join the over 100 US cities, academic institutions and companies which will be making commitments as part of this years National Week of Making.

You might ask, “Who is this president, to call on Burning Man?”

A year ago when I began working with the White House office of Science and Technology Policy Tom Kalil , Assistant to the President for Science and Technology Policy said to me, unprompted “Our strategy is to get cities to realize they have the ability to create temporary autonomous zones, and those can drive innovation.” When I asked where a White House reference to the founding principles of Burning Man came from, I was reminded, “Don’t forget, your president is a community organizer!”

I’ve come to learn the White House team respects the burner network as diverse, capable and smart. They and are curious to understand how the Burning Man org is leveraging that resource for civic benefit, learning, engagement and community building.

Jenn, I know you have been engaged in linking Burning Man’s cites, the regional network and the Maker movement together. The President would like to call on Burning Man’s support in making this happen as part of the National Week of making. I hope you and Stephanie speak soon so that our nation might call on one of its most unique and creative communities in the greater mission of building a Nation of Makers


Peter Hirshberg

The Maker City Project